Thieves And Headlights

Question

Sruly is on his way to the bus stop. He notices that
one of his neighbours has left the headlights of his car on. Should he
bother walking up to the fifth floor to tell him? He decides to tell them,
and then wonders is he an exceptional person or just doing his duty? On
another occasion he notices a suspicious looking person making his way
into an old widow’s apartment via a back window. Is he obligated to
call the police? Does he have to try to tackle the burglar himself?


Answer

In Tractate Bovo Metzia (31a), Rovo derives from the
verse (Devarim 22:3), “For all your brother’s lost articles,” that
if one sees another Jew’s field about to be flooded, one should try to
prevent the waters from entering the field. From here we derive a
principle that a Jew must save a fellow-Jew from impending monetary loss
if he is able to do so. Similarly, in Tractate Bovo Basro (43a), the
Rashbam explains that the obligation to chase away wild animals which are
threatening another Jew’s flock (mavri’ach ari) is also derived
from the commandment to return a lost article. Preventing a loss is just
like returning a lost article.

The Rambam (Sefer HaMitzvos, No.297) writes that if one
is able to save a Jew from financial loss but fails to do so out of
laziness, he has transgressed the command, “Do not stand idly by while
your fellow-man’s blood is in danger of being shed,” (Vayikra 19:16).
Not only does this refer to preventing loss of life, but it also applies
to loss of money. The Chofetz Chayim writes (Introduction to Ahavas Chesed,
No. 3) that this can even apply to assisting a wealthy person. If being
unable to make a payment on time will cause him a substantial loss and you
can help him out with a loan, you are obligated to help him through this
method.

The Ramban (Kuntras Dina d’Garmi) adds that if one
failed to prevent a loss or ignored a lost article which was subsequently
destroyed, one has a moral obligation to compensate the owner for his
loss. He derives this from the law (Tractate Bovo Kamo 60a) that if
someone could help a fellow-Jew by testifying on his behalf in a monetary
case but fails to do so, he is morally obligated to compensate him for the
loss he thus incurred (chayov b’dinay shomayim – see Me’iri ad loco).

It is therefore clear that if one is in a position to
save a Jew from financial loss, one is obligated to do so. This is no
special act of piety, but a full obligation. Indeed, one who does not
fulfill this duty has failed to perform the positive commandment to return
a lost article (which includes preventing loss). In addition, he has
"stood idly by" while his brother’s money is being lost.
Furthermore, he is morally liable to compensate his fellow-Jew for the
loss he caused him through his lack of action. Thus, when Sruly went to
inform his neighbour that he had forgotten to switch off the headlights of
his car, he was just doing his duty. The same would have applied had he
observed that someone’s water pipe was leaking, that lights or the
air-conditioner had been left on in an empty shul or other similar
circumstances. He should either turn off the water, lights, etc. or at
least inform those in charge of the problem.

What should you do if you see a burglar entering someone’s property?
Should you call the police, even if they will not deal with the criminal
in accordance with Torah law? Generally, this is the correct course of
action, unless you know the thief and are able to convince him to return
the stolen goods and refrain from stealing in future. Since handing him
over to the police is usually the only practical way of saving others from
the clutches of this thief, it is both permitted and recommended (see Remo
to Choshen Mishpot 388:7)! Should you tackle him on your own? Not if this
will put you in danger! Similarly, it sometimes happens that one observes
workers constantly damaging or pilfering the company’s property. If
warning the culprits would not be effective, one should inform the boss of
their misdeeds. This would even apply if the boss would not deal with them
strictly in accordance with Jewish law. Should passing on such information
put the informant in physical danger – or even in danger of severe
monetary loss – one may remain silent. Preventing one’s own loss has
priority over preventing another person’s loss – see Shach (Ibid. Note
45).